Building on the Past: Researching House History at OHS

May 31, 2022

By Laura Cray and Ilana Sol

In 2021, Tammy McCarty and Nicholas Stark sit on the front porch of their house in the Overlook Neighborhood, recreating a historical photograph held in OHS’s research library that features the original residents of their home in about 1905. Photograph courtesy of Tammy McCarty.

Many of the people who visit the research library at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) come with a common research goal: gathering documentation about the history of a residential or commercial property. Researchers searching for house and building history are motivated by a range of interests, including historic preservation and architectural history, documenting change to a neighborhood over time, and a desire to connect with the city’s past residents. OHS is not an official records repository for property-specific information, such as deeds and permit records; only a small percentage of the structures in Oregon are represented in our collections, and they are rarely identified in ways that make them easy to locate. Despite daunting odds of success, the thrill of uncovering the past in an archival box entices many researchers to keep coming back. The research library’s extensive photograph, manuscript, and maps collections continue to draw in people hoping to be the lucky ones who find history that is missing in a property’s official government records — the lived experiences of former occupants. Those missing pieces could show up in a photograph showing the faces of the past residents, the landscaping, or the interior details of a home as it existed at different points in time.

For Tammy McCarty and Nicholas Stark, a restoration project on the porch of their 1905 foursquare house on the Willamette Bluffs in North Portland prompted their house history research. When McCarty and Stark moved into the home eight years ago, the property came with a memory box filled with mementos dating back to the first residents of the house. The memory box was originally found during a renovation in the 1980s, housed in a box of old papers in the attic floor, and subsequent generations of residents continued to add their own memories to the box. This connection to past residents inspired McCarty and Stark to remain true to the original character of their house. Their goal as owners and stewards of the home is to, “make the house worth it to somebody wanting to live in it 100 years from now.”

A memory box documenting the past residents of McCarty and Stark’s home. Photograph courtesy of Tammy McCarty.
A memory box initially found in the attic floor of McCarty and Stark’s house helped to connect the current owners with generations of past residents. The materials in the box date back to about 1905, when the first residents lived there. For McCarty and Stark, researching house history in the archives is their way to make a contribution to the home. Photograph courtesy of Tammy McCarty.
North Portland home in about 1905. OHS Research Library, Glass negatives of Early Portland residential scenes, Org. Lot 1417, neg. 001.
Tammy McCarty and Nicholas Stark instantly recognized the familiar view of steam rising from the trains traveling along the Willamette River when they saw this historical photograph of their current home. The photograph is part of a recently digitized collection of glass negatives featuring residential scenes in Portland in about 1905. OHS Research Library, Glass negatives of Early Portland residential scenes, Org. Lot 1417, neg. 001.

As part of the planning for the extensive restorations to the porch, McCarty visited OHS in search of anything that might tell them more about the house as it existed 100 years ago. As she sorted through numerous library collections in search of elusive photographs of her home, McCarty quickly discovered that house history research is a bit of a treasure hunt: “I searched, and searched, and searched. I would say months. Because I really wanted to find a picture of the house.” Like many hopeful researchers, McCarty learned a lot about the Willamette Bluffs and the Overlook neighborhood, but the closest photographic documentation she was able to locate was an aerial image from the 1940s that included the house in the far distance. Her luck changed a few months ago when a friend sent a message saying, “this looks an awful lot like your place,” along with a link to an OHS blog post titled, “A 1905 “Slice of Life” View of Portland’s East Side.” McCarty and Stark recognized their house immediately. Even the cloud of steam rising from the train in the background echoed their familiar view of the Willamette River.

This story of serendipitously finding what you are looking for, just as you are about to give up, is a common theme in archival research. It is part of what makes the process so rewarding. In a world where so much information is instantly accessible, the slow, methodical, and at times frustrating process of conducting archival research is a refreshing change of pace. Due to their fragile nature and because they were part of an unprocessed collection, these photographs of McCarty’s house were not available for research when she initially visited OHS. Ongoing work to process and digitize collections, such as the glass negatives of early Portland residential scenes, has made accessible this piece of Portland’s residential architectural history.

OHS Research Library, Glass negatives of Early Portland residential scenes, Org. Lot 1417, neg. 005.
Two women sit on the front porch of a newly constructed four-square house overlooking the Willamette Bluffs in North Portland. The photograph is part of a recently digitized collection of glass negatives featuring residential scenes in Portland from about 1905. OHS Research Library, Glass negatives of Early Portland residential scenes, Org. Lot 1417, neg. 005.
McCarty and Stark’s house as it appears in 2021. Photograph courtesy of Tammy McCarty.
This photograph shows McCarty and Stark’s house as it appears today. Images from OHS’s research library collections confirm that the exterior of the house has remained nearly unchanged after 100 years. Photograph courtesy of Tammy McCarty.

This same sense of serendipity is shared across the desk by the archivists caring for the collections. So much of our job is untangling the many lost pieces of provenance and context that help us connect researchers with the right boxes in the collections. We often do not have the time to follow every thread to unlock the full story behind each photograph, but community sleuths have helped us identify locations for several photographs in the Glass negatives of Early Portland residential scenes collection.

For people interested in conducting house history research, do not let the long odds deter you. The research library has recently published a new House and Building History research guide, and reference staff are here to help you get started. While you might not find the exact information you are looking for, you may come away knowing more about the history of the community where you live.

Categories: Collection HighlightsAudience(s): Researchers, Visitors

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